Dual Essendon best-and-fairest winner Zach Merrett has been axed from the Bombers' AFL leadership group following a player vote despite spending three years as vice-captain.
The reigning Crichton medallist was a surprise omission from the Bombers' five-man leadership group considering he's long been touted as a future captain of the club.
Just 20, Merrett was stand-in captain for two games in 2016 when Essendon were decimated by bans to players caught up in the supplements saga.
He also filled in as skipper a number of times last year when Dyson Heppell was injured.
Many fans viewed Merrett's snub as a concerning development in his Bombers career.
However, others argued that removing leadership responsibility from Merrett would allow him to focus purely on his own game.
850 games of experience.— Essendon FC (@essendonfc) February 3, 2020
Our 2020 leaders 🔴⚫️
Zach Merrett must’ve killed Bambi. Gone from being Vice Captain and next in line to completely cut from the leadership group.— Rory Flanagan (@Rory_Flanagan) February 4, 2020
Zaharakis not even in best 25 and appointed to leadership group.
I think everyone’s waiting on the explanation of why Zach Merrett last years Vice Captain is all of a sudden out of the group completely.— Bailey McGlone (@BaileyMcglone1) February 4, 2020
Baffled by Zach Merrett's omission from the leadership group. Absolutely baffled.— Patch (@PatchToTheMax) February 4, 2020
Zach Merrett is a better player when he doesn't have to worry about captaincy and his team mates know it. Thats all i read into it.— Brett (@Brett854) February 4, 2020
Am skeptical of it also, but think it ultimately came down to who are the best 5 leaders at the club - regardless of talent.— Adrian Johnson (@Adrian9Johnson6) February 4, 2020
True but he will probably play with a little more freedom?— Karz (@KFar90) February 4, 2020
Wonder why Merrett was relieved of this? I was sure he was our next captain. Maybe letting him just focus on his footy?— SEAN 🙏🙏 GOD IS GOOD (@SEANEFFECTBRAND) February 3, 2020
‘I think Zach will find ways to grow’
Merrett joins Joe Daniher and Orazio Fantasia on the outer after the pair came close to leaving the club at the end of last season.
It leaves former GWS aces Dylan Shiel and Devon Smith to step-in to the club's leadership group for the first time.
The pair will join experienced midfielder David Zaharakis and veteran defender Michael Hurley, who returns after missing in 2019, with Heppell confirmed as captain for the fourth-straight year.
"It's just a good opportunity to reflect on your leadership style," Hurley said.
"Last year I wasn't in the group but I think my leadership grew throughout the year.
"I saw things slightly differently and became a bit of a conduit for some of the players that were in the leadership group and some of the younger players.
"I think Zach will find ways to grow.
"He's a smart, driven young guy and I think that his leadership will continue to grow and we'll see him as a leader in the future."
Club officials insist there is nothing sinister in Merrett's surprising absence, with selection criteria also slightly different to last year.
Daniher's omission, however, was to be expected after the key forward's failed trade request to Sydney in October.
Fantasia toyed with the idea of returning home to South Australia for personal reasons, with the pair struggling with groin and hip injuries respectively last season.
"I think for (Orazio) and Joe this year their focus might be more on their physical capacity and getting themselves back on the field," Hurley said.
It is a big tick of approval for 26-year-old Shiel, who is entering his second season at the Bombers after switching from the Giants at the end of 2018.
He finished runner-up to Merrett in Essendon's best-and-fairest last year.
Smith headed to Essendon a year before Shiel, winning the Crichton Medal in his debut season.
A knee injury ruined Smith's 2019 campaign, limiting him to just seven games in the red and black.
Hurley is progressing well from a post-season shoulder reconstruction and is hopeful of playing in the AFL's bushfire charity game at Marvel Stadium on Friday, February 28.